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7 Mistakes I Made as an American in England

Time October 17th, 2016 in 2016 Fall, England | No Comments by

I thought going to an English-speaking, Westernized country meant “culture shock” would be minimal. I could not have been more wrong. The differences between England and the U.S. are too many to count and I have had my fair share of uncomfortable experiences. Today I share with you 10 instances in which I really felt like a confused foreigner in hopes that you will learn from my experiences.

1. Not looking both ways (or the right way) when crossing the street: I remembered that they drive on the opposite side of the road here when I got into my taxi at the airport. It was so strange; I felt like the entire car ride I was slightly leaning to the right as if my body weight would move the car over to the side that I normally drive on. While I would never EVER attempt to drive in this country, I failed to realize that this difference in road movements affects me even as a pedestrian. I will be the first to admit that sometimes I lack the patience to wait for the “WALK” sign at a crosswalk. If I see an opportunity, I usually decide to cross. This has proved to be a dangerous habit if you look the wrong direction in search for cars. In an attempt to avoid the national health service, look both ways before crossing the street.

2. Yellow light does not always mean stopping: Along the same lines of different road rules, here in England (and I have heard this applies to other European countries) the stoplight uses yellow on two occasions: before red AND before green. So if you’re like me and you see a yellow light as essentially the go-ahead to begin crossing, this is also another dangerous habit. Unless you were watching the stop light for awhile prior to know which color is going to follow the yellow, it is not safe to assume that the car is stopping. On a slight tangent I think the use of yellow to essentially mean “get ready to _(stop/go)__” is really interesting and I wonder whether it was added or if the U.S. eliminated it.

3. Bikes are just as dangerous: My final advice to fellow pedestrians is to be wary of cyclists. In my hometown people who bike are usually doing so recreationally – some in the sidewalk and some in the street. Here biking is an entirely different ball game. It is an efficient form of transportation and they are ruthless. My eyes widen as they weave around massive, double-decker buses and as they speed right towards me coming down the street. I have not seen it myself, but my friend told me that today he witnessed someone get hit by a bike and just hearing about it made my body ache. Treat bikes with the same vigilance as you do cars (and honestly maybe more because since they are smaller they can easily sneak up out of nowhere) and hopefully that won’t happen to you.

4. Be cognizant of operating hours: Unlike in the U.S. where things are open 24/7 for 7 days a week, most businesses in England have much more limited operating hours. Stores close much earlier and Sunday evenings are a ghost town. I discovered this the hard way when my friend and I got a late dinner and wanted to grab some dessert sweets from a grocery store on our way back. Our chocolate cravings were sadly unfulfilled as we walked past the dark doors of every store. At the same time stores do not always open as early either. It is completely normal for a store to open at 10:00 am as opposed to the 8:00 AM or 9:00 AM that I consider normal back in the U.S.

5. Mind your manners: This tip is more applicable to Oxford students. While it varies amongst colleges, most Oxford colleges have some sort of formal dinner. At St. Catz we have the option to go to a formal dinner (called “hall” short for formal hall) every weeknight. While dress code is completely casual, the dining etiquette is more refined. You sit in these long tables with attached desk lights, which almost make you feel like you should be studying. Every seat must be filled by top to bottom, so you can easily be seated next to a stranger. There are waiters, multiple courses, and you can BYOB. Something very important about hall is learning the etiquette. Luckily, the people I was seated next to at my very first hall informed me of all the rules before I broke too many of them. A notable rule is that you cannot eat until everyone around you has received their food – something that I wish I had known before I started inhaling these amazing potato wedges.

6. BYOB (with the second b standing for bags): Because England is much more advanced in terms of environmentally-minded rules and regulations, it costs money to purchase plastic bags at the grocery store. During orientation I attended the freshers fair/activity fair/clubs and societies fair where different student groups try to recruit new members. After the event I had 3 different canvas bags which have all been repurposed into grocery shopping bags. Even though the plastic bags are cheap, it is much easier to carry groceries in a sturdier bag. Sometimes when I know I’ll need a substantial amount of groceries, I go with an empty backpack. Depending on where your college is, the walk to the grocery store can be over 20 minutes and it will feel like more than that if you have plastic bags digging into your arms.

7. Don’t be offended if people aren’t outrageously friendly: This is something I learned at orientation but also experienced first hand on my way there. I took a quick train from Heathrow airport to central London. As one would expect, I was bursting with excitement and wonder. The train was pretty full, so I placed my luggage in the racks and sat in the closest open seat next to this man. I turned to him to ask if the train went to Piccadilly and his eyes opened so wide. He nodded twice – silently. I didn’t fully realize this was probably him telling me that he was not interested in talking to me, but my excitement was so high that all I could do was look out the window. I made some remark about how beautiful the city looked, how it was my first time in England, and how I’m so eager to begin my journey. He looked at me with a slightly bewildered look on his face. I asked him if he had any recommendations on what I must do while I am here and he responded with, “Not particularly.” At that point the train was arriving in the station, but I had gotten the message. This man was not interested in having any sort of conversation on the train. After an orientation lecture on cultural differences between the U.K and the U.S., I was informed that making small talk with strangers on public transportation is a very American habit. People in the U.K. tend to be more reserved in public and do not consider a train ride to be a social experience. So don’t be confused if the person you sit next to does not want to be your best friend or offer to be your tour guide, it’s not personal.


I apologize for writing another “list-icle”. I promise my next blog post will include pictures of campus now that I am here and really settling in for the season.








Trusting Yourself

Time September 3rd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”

–James Joyce

Terminals always make me phlegmy.

I can’t quite explain why, but I think it has something to do with the cheap starchy food you find in the restaurants; it glues to the back of your throat and you cough and sputter and finally try to wash it all away with water and Pepsi, but of course that only makes things worse when you realize that Pepsi is pretty much all corn syrup and sugar and very likely much more ill-equipped for dislodging chunks of potato than nothing at all. Of course, you can still attempt to cough it all away, but when you do be forewarned that any spectators who catch you attempting this will think that you’re either hacking up a fur ball or choking on one.

There are solutions: don’t eat from airport restaurants, consume a huge breakfast, or stick to the light stuff like soups and salads (though these, remarkably enough, can still prove to be a gamble). Maybe attempt Lipton or coffee instead of soda if you’re having difficulties.

Aside from that, there’s not much more I can think of. Phlegmy throats and coughing fits are a characteristic of terminals that I have never been able to circumvent in all my years of traveling, no matter how adequately I prepare myself. To say I’ve gotten used to it would be an overstatement, though by now I can admit to having achieved a level of complacency. Braving terminals may mean a day of hacks and wheezes, but all things considered, I prefer knowing my inconveniences beforehand so I can prepare for them. And on a more optimistic note, a grainy throat is a small price to pay to go to the places I’ve gone to.

None of this really has anything to do with my upcoming excursion to Ireland per se (three hours and counting until my flight leaves) and you may very well chock these paragraphs up to personal problems and stop reading here. They are personal problems, I’ll be the first to admit, but there’s a traveler’s truth behind them: amateur travelers, experienced go-abouters, and cosmopolitans alike can share an experience of nothing, ever, going as intended.

This is of course true wherever you go, and yet nothing quite brings you into its universal focus until you’re immersing yourself in another culture and realize that every word you say or frivolous hand gesture that you make has the potential to mean something different from what you intended. We forget that culture is as much a concept as it is a developing organism: it adapts to the times and to people and to trends, even borrowing form sister cultures, and always emerging different from its source material.

This is not my first time overseas. I’ve frequented New Zealand and tramped the streets of Prague; I’ve hiked the Swiss Alps and gotten yelled at by the Austrian police for an invalid bus ticket. I consider myself an experienced traveler not because I’ve had the opportunities to go abroad and taken them, but because I’ve made more mistakes abroad than most other people. As recently as last year, I found myself walking a three-hour journey back to the home of my host mother in Austria at four in the morning, having taken the wrong (and coincidentally, last) bus away from the city center. This is hardly an isolated event.

The thing about it is though, mistakes, until proven harmful, are only unintentional paths. Stephen Dedalus had it right when he called mistakes the “portals to discovery”, though it doesn’t have to be only geniuses that make them. If anyone can make a mistake, anyone can be a pioneer.

There is a theme here, in case you were wondering. Getting lost at four in the morning in a foreign country and culture itself: they’re both just mistakes that led to chance products, ones that history, being ineluctable and perpetual history, has simply had to carry on with. The word ‘mistake’ itself does not do us any favours either; mis-intention is perhaps the more appropriate term.

Clacking away at my keys in the corner of the terminal takes the mind off problems like the phlegmy throat, but only for so long. Sometimes, once you realize that the only-so-much-you-can-do isn’t quite good enough, you’re more comfortable with your situation than you were in the beginning. This can go for anything: packing for a semester-long excursion three thousand miles across the world, researching a foreign country in the hopes of having a better understanding of your future home, brushing up on current politics so that you’re careful not to say anything offensive to your fellow countrymen. Accept the fact that you’ll probably forget something (portable toothbrush) or accidentally insult someone and you feel immensely better.

I’ve been researching Ireland for the past five years—from Famine politics to Gaelic poetry of the Great Blasket Islands, the music of the Dropkick Murphys to traditional ceili and everything insignificant in-between. This may sound a bit like bragging: this is definitely a bit of bragging. Even so, after all is said and done and with all my research, I can safely confirm that I know next to nothing about Ireland or its culture. With preparation one can only learn to speculate: culture moves too fast for anyone who’s grounded only in books to have much of a realistic idea about what it means or what’s important about it.

I’m not saying all of this only because I’m feeling philosophical, but rather because most of the pre-departure blog talk you’ll here is pretty much the same. There’s much talk of nerves and worries, packing woes and cell phone troubles, all of which is overlaid with an emphasis on how excited the traveler feels to be traveling. Describing all of these sensations is a fine way of explaining how one feels about setting off on his or her adventure. Most of it is useless.

I imagine that most people realistically don’t care what I’m feeling about going to Ireland. Adventures are adventures only to those who take them; everyone else’s job is to be polite when they regale you about them. Which means that I’m not going to set out and explain to you how I’m feeling or why I’m excited: what you’ll get here are the stories, as many as I can provide, with as much culture as I can possibly squeeze into the gaps.

I’ve probably rambled away for too long. Too much talk leads us in circles like pony trails: better to make your mis-intentions than talk yourself out of doing anything at all. And so, from now until my plane takes off:

Sláinte agus saibhreas!

PS: Attached some pictures here. Still don’t really know how the add images toggle works so I just threw them down without much consideration.

IMAGE 1: My attempt at sporting some Irish cool

IMAGE 2: My attempt at sporting some Irish sexy

IMAGE 3: Packing despair: do we pack the hurling cleats or the stepdancing heels? Every man’s worst nightmare.